Camping In Wisconsin: Four Seasons Of Fun For RVers
With its distinctive shape resembling a left hand, Wisconsin is one of the most beautiful states in America. RVers who visit Wisconsin can enjoy four seasons of fun. Bordered by Lake Michigan on the east and the Mississippi River on the west, water is a big draw for the state named “the Land of Gathering Waters” by Ojibwa Indians centuries ago.
RVers aren’t the only people who enjoy visiting Wisconsin. There are more than 15,000 lakes within its borders, making it a favorite among anglers, boaters, and paddle sports enthusiasts alike.
The state features interesting terrain because glaciers from the world’s Ice Age bypassed a wide swath of land, resulting in unusual geological formations, exquisite bluffs, and spectacular rolling hills not found in the much-flatter nearby states.
Located in the upper Midwest, Wisconsin residents love the four seasons which encourage a plethora of outdoor activity. Except for the winter months from mid-November to early April, temperatures are often comfortable the rest of the time.
The state is rich in history and is well known for its dairy products, especially cheese curds. In fact, it is estimated a quarter of America’s cheese comes from Wisconsin.
Best time to visit Wisconsin
The best time to go camping in Wisconsin is generally from early May through the end of October. Winter can be brutally cold, spring can be a bit soggy, summer can be hot and humid, but fall is spectacular with a kaleidoscope of color ranging from dark red and deep brown to bright yellow and the always-present evergreens.
Camping and RVing during spring and fall is particularly enjoyable because the daily temperatures are moderate, but nighttime temps are warm enough to keep the windows open, yet cool enough that you may still want a blanket. The locals will tell you that if you don’t like the weather, wait a few hours and it will change.
Summer is bustling with activity throughout the state, and most communities large and small lay claim to some type of celebration, whether it is historical, cultural, or just because Wisconsinites like a good party. But, pack your mosquito repellent. The insects are so prevalent in some areas that you’d think “skeeters” were the state bird.
Outdoor recreation is extremely popular in Wisconsin and it’s very affordable, even for non-residents. For $38, people can buy a sticker giving everyone in the vehicle unlimited access to more than 60 state parks, forests, and recreation areas. Most of those areas offer camping at rates between $20 and $42 per night for non-residents.
RV driving in Wisconsin
There are more than 11,700 miles of highways scattered throughout the state. And, with more than 110 million tourists visiting each year, tourism is a huge industry. As a result, for those that visit Wisconsin, it’s one of the best states for traveling in RVs.
First, there is no special speed limit for recreational vehicles. The speed limit for cars, trucks and RVs is 70 mph across the board on interstate highways, except for congested urban interstates. On rural divided highways, the speed limit is 65 mph, but that drops to 55 mph on other roads with two-way traffic.
People are allowed to ride in fifth wheels in Wisconsin as long as they are over the age of 13; however, passengers are not permitted to ride in travel trailers. Of course, people should wear seat belts whenever any RV is moving.
Wisconsin maintains 28 rest areas throughout the state. Although they are a little more difficult to find in the northern half of the state, rest areas are generally found within an hour of each other. People traveling in big rigs will appreciate advisory signs along interstate highways telling drivers how many truck-size parking spaces are available in upcoming rest areas.
During summer months, the state and counties also maintain a number of more rustic waysides along rural highways. Some of the waysides may not have bathrooms, and neither rest areas or waysides have RV dump stations.
Wisconsin law allows three-vehicle combinations to operate on state highways, which means a truck towing a fifth wheel can also tow a boat or car as long as the combined length of all three vehicles does not exceed 70 feet. People trying to sneak three vehicles through Wisconsin during winter months should be aware of ever-changing weather conditions because laws prevent large combinations from operating on snow-covered or icy roads.
The state numbers its interstate highway exits based on the official mile marker, not sequentially like it is done in some states. So, when you see a billboard advising people to take Exit 92, and you’re at mile marker 75, you know the exit is 17 miles away.
Scenic drives in Wisconsin
Because it is a crossroad of several major highways, many RVers travel through Wisconsin on their way to other destinations.
One of the most scenic drives in Wisconsin is the Great River Road, which starts in the historic trading town of Prairie du Chien, where French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet charted where the Wisconsin River enters the mighty Mississippi.
Wyalusing State Park is one of the prettiest campgrounds in the state. RVers can park atop a bluff overlooking the delta and even view ancient earthen mounds constructed by Indians in the shapes of animals that were used in ceremonies and as burial sites. The park has a marked canoe trail that guides people through the backwaters of the Wisconsin River onto the Mississippi River where you can see eagles soaring over the bluffs and spot their large, magnificent nests among the treetops.
From Prairie du Chien, the Great River Road follows Wisconsin Hwy. 35 directly along the eastern edge of the Mississippi River through La Crosse to Hudson. Laura Ingalls Wilder fans will enjoy the museum honoring the famous author’s legacy in Pepin, just a few miles south of her log cabin birthplace, which remains a historical site and rest area. There are a number of campgrounds along Hwy. 35 that afford fun opportunities to view tug boats carrying minerals, crops and other goods up and down the river.
In Door County, highways 57 and 42 form a loop drive that offers spectacular views of Lake Michigan and Green Bay. The landscape is sprinkled with colorful orchards and farmland. During fall, the changing leaves provide an array of color.
May is a fun time to drive through Door County because the apple and cherry trees are in full bloom. By July, the cherries are ripe and ready for picking. In August and September, the apples appear and pumpkins can be seen in October.
Called the “Driftless Area” because glaciers left the region virtually unscathed more than 10,000 years ago, the 115-mile Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive meanders through six counties in southeast Wisconsin including more than 20 officially-sanctioned natural areas. Travelers can also visit the Wade House, an 1860’s stagecoach inn; Holy Hill, the highest peak in the region with stunning views of the rolling countryside; and Old World Wisconsin, a living history museum with lots of live demonstrations of life in the 1800s.
Starting near Whitewater and traveling north to Elkhart Lake, you can follow the route along various county roads and less-trafficked state highways past several lakes and through Kettle Moraine State Forest. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources offers a free downloadable map by visiting dnr.wisconsin.gov and searching for Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive. Some areas will require a state park admission sticker.
RVers can enter Wisconsin from Rockford, Illinois, on Interstate 39/90 at Beloit and follow that highway about an hour north of Madison where the highways divide near Portage. Interstate 90 continues west through Wisconsin Dells and La Crosse before heading into Minnesota and eventually reaches Seattle. Interstate 39 directs RVers north to Stevens Point and the ski destination of Rib Mountain.
A little further east, Interstate 94 guides RVers from Chicago through Milwaukee to Madison and Wisconsin Dells before splitting off in Tomah. From there, Interstate 94 connects with college cities Eau Claire and Menomonie before entering Minnesota on the way to Minneapolis and Billings, Montana, before reconnecting with Interstate 90.
Located entirely within Wisconsin, Interstate 43 starts less than three miles from the Illinois border and follows Interstate 94 through Milwaukee before diverting north along the western edge of Lake Michigan to Sheboygan and Manitowoc until it terminates in Green Bay.
Interstate 41 begins less than a mile south of the border with Illinois and directs travelers through Milwaukee and on to the Fox Valley cities of Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, and Green Bay where it becomes U.S. Hwy. 41 and continues into upper Michigan.
RVing near Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Wisconsin’s largest city is Milwaukee, located in the southeastern part of the state along Lake Michigan and only a few hours north of Chicago. With almost 600,000 residents, Milwaukee boasts of many major league sporting events, cultural activities, and was once the beer-producing capital of the nation until the craft beer industry arrived on the scene.
Still, there is one bar in Wisconsin for every 1,877 residents. But beer isn’t the only drink delicacy residents enjoy. Brandy Old Fashions, a mixture of brandy, fruit juice, and clear soda served with a cherry or orange slice, was introduced by German immigrants in the 1800s.
Nowhere is Wisconsin’s immigrant roots better celebrated than in Milwaukee. Developed by settlers from many nations, the city proudly commemorates its heritage with a number of community festivals. Not only does it keep the native spirit alive, but it creates opportunities for people who visit Wisconsin to explore the myriad of foods, crafts, music, and history that defines each unique culture.
Cultural celebrations are so important in Milwaukee that the city built a festival park just to accommodate all the family-friendly parties occurring throughout the year. When you go camping in Wisconsin, here are a few events you shouldn’t miss:
- Starting with Polish Fest in June, visitors can enjoy colorful folk dancers, sample a sip of vodka, and chow down on kielbasa sausages or Pierogi, a native delicacy of meat, sauerkraut, cheese, and fruit while listening to youngsters compete in the annual Chopin piano competition.
- Bastille Days in July features a number of talented chefs demonstrating how to prepare scrumptious French foods and pastries. Sip on award-winning wine while listening to French music or watching mimes and buskers (musicians) as they entertain the crowd.
- RVers who visit Milwaukee will enjoy Festa Italiana in July. You can’t walk away from the annual event hungry! The festival combines the music, culture, food and wine of Old Italy in an outdoor park near the shores of Lake Michigan. Visitors can even enjoy an old-fashioned gondola ride in the harbor.
- Grab a partner and polka to your heart’s content at German Fest or raise a stein of beer while listening to traditional music and enjoying the ever-popular bratwurst, a sausage often cooked in beer and served on a chewy bun. The event also takes place in July.
- The Dragon Boat Festival in August is a family favorite for kids to make Chinese lanterns, ornamental masks and other crafts. There are even martial arts demonstrations and an opportunity to participate in a dragon parade. People can learn to write or speak Chinese, which may come in handy while cheering on their favorite vessels participating in the annual dragon boat races.
Though not a festival, about an hour drive north of Milwaukee is the picturesque village of Elkhart Lake. This tiny town of less than a thousand residents got its start in the 1870s, thanks to the arrival of the Milwaukee & Northern Railroad. Elkhart Lake boasts golf and family-friendly activities through Road America.
RVing near Madison, Wisconsin
Madison is the second-largest city in the state, one of the most beautiful capital cities in America, and a must-see when you visit Wisconsin. Built on an isthmus between four lakes, Madison is home of the University of Wisconsin, an internationally-recognized educational institution with a famous mascot called Bucky Badger.
Madison is also the seat of state government. The capitol building itself was modeled after the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., but was intentionally constructed to be six inches shorter in deference to the nation’s capital.
Strolling through the capitol building, people are impressed by the granite architecture, carefully laid mosaic art, and historical paintings that garnish the walls. Kids and adults enjoy standing in the center of the rotunda and gazing up at the giant painting 200 feet above them. The capitol building is open daily, except for major holidays, and people can either walk through the building themselves or join a 55-minute guided tour.
Except for winter, people can often enjoy the sixth-floor observation area which provides guests with a 360-degree view of Madison and its lakes. Those lakes also ensure there are plenty of campground options for RVers who visit Wisconsin.
The Madison Children’s Museum, Wisconsin Veterans Museum, and Wisconsin Historical Museum are all situated along Capitol Square, but don’t try to drive an RV in the downtown district. Parking is sparse and there are very few places to turn around among the many one-way streets.
From May through October, the capitol grounds host a farmer’s market each Saturday morning where people can buy locally-produced goods and, of course, fresh cheese curds. A few blocks away, people can tour the Madison Convention Center, a building overlooking Lake Monona that was designed by legendary architect and Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright. Fans of his work will also enjoy touring Taliesin, his 600-acre estate located 45 minutes northwest of Madison near the city of Spring Green.
The walk down historic State Street from the capitol to the university’s Bascom Hill offers a true taste of Madison’s culture. Be sure to stop at the Memorial Union, grab an ice cream cone, beer or bratwurst and sit on the terrace watching the sailboats.
There are plenty of hiking and biking trails throughout Madison, including several that navigate around the lakes and through the university’s arboretum or Picnic Point peninsula jutting into Lake Mendota. It is one of the most bike-friendly communities in the nation. Madison is also home to the Vilas Park Zoo, one of the best free zoos in America.
Camping in Wisconsin Dells
When you visit Wisconsin, no trip to the Badger State is complete without stopping in scenic Wisconsin Dells. Located about an hour north of Madison, the Dells is also the Waterpark Capital of the World with the largest concentration of indoor and outdoor water facilities on the planet.
The region has always been a popular tourist destination during summer months, but Wisconsinites want to play in the winter, too. Thanks to a brilliant marketing strategy and some rather sizeable investments, Wisconsin Dells is home to six massive waterparks.
While in the Dells, enjoy a cruise on the historic Ducks – amphibious World War II-era vehicles which take visitors on guided tours along city streets and past interesting geographical formations on the Wisconsin River. For people who like more adventure, jet boats can take them on a wild ride as well.
There are literally hundreds of natural and manmade attractions in the Dells, including golf and mini-golf, amusement parks, zip lines or ropes courses, wineries, shopping, museums, and shows suitable for people of all ages. So be sure to allow plenty of time to see as many of these attractions as possible. With more than 100 campgrounds near Wisconsin Dells, accommodations for RVers shouldn’t be a problem.
A short distance away, people can tour Circus World in Baraboo, where “The Greatest Show on Earth” was founded as the Ringling Brother’s Circus in 1884. Through a bunch of displays, including the colorful trains and wagons used to transport animals and people, visitors can delve into the history of the circus and relive what life was like for performers and animals. They can also enjoy a live show featuring traditional circus acts.
Very few people know that America’s wine industry actually started in little Prairie du Sac, between Madison and Wisconsin Dells. The Wollersheim Winery traces its start to the 1840s where the first grapevines were planted by Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian immigrant.
After a few tough winters and the historic Gold Rush’s call to fortune, he dug up some of those plants and relocated them to Napa Valley, California. People can still visit the historic site which still operates as a working winery when they visit Wisconsin.
RVing in Fox Valley and Green Bay
Following the Fox River from Green Bay to Fond du Lac, this region encompasses Lake Winnebago, the largest fresh water lake located within the boundaries of a single state. It is a favorite among boaters who enjoy “lock hopping” through the 17 historic locks along the river. The region is unique in that many bridges must be raised to allow large sailboats, lake yachts, and houseboats to pass through.
You can’t visit Wisconsin without stopping by Green Bay. In Green Bay, people can visit legendary Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers football team. With a population of slightly more than 100,000 people, Green Bay is the smallest city to host a professional football team. Not only that, but the team is actually owned by local residents.
Football fans will love touring the Packers Hall of Fame and learning about famous players and coaches like Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Reggie White, Brett Favre, and other players who guided the team to a record-setting 13 championships, including four Super Bowl wins. The nearby Title Town shopping district offers a great place to grab a meal.
In Appleton, people can visit the Paper Discovery Center to learn how the paper industry really defined the region for many years. They also see how paper is made and are encouraged to try making some on their own. There are active mills still operating in the region, as evidenced from the foul smell encountered from time-to-time.
It’s hard to believe, but the airport in Oshkosh (population 67,000) becomes the busiest airport in the world during the annual Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) AirVenture. Thousands of amateur pilots fly in, many of them in hand-built planes, for a week of displays, training and aerobatic air shows. Children are often admitted free.
The EAA maintains a museum where people can walk through displays of 200 military and civilian aircraft to learn the history of aviation in America. Using a cell phone, people can even take a virtual cockpit tour to see some aircraft from a pilot’s point of view.
History buffs who visit Wisconsin will want to stop in the small town of Ripon, located 30 miles to the west of Oshkosh or Fond du Lac. There, in 1854, the Republican Party was formed during a meeting of Whigs, Democrats, and Independents. The museum is open year-round for self-guided tours.
People who have never been to an ocean can enjoy a taste of sea travel by taking a ferry across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc to Ludington, Michigan, aboard the SS Badger. Onboard, people can visit a museum, shop in the “boatique,” or enjoy a movie, a drink, or a meal.
The four-hour trip across the lake can save many more hours of travel compared to diving around Chicago to Michigan. The ferry can accommodate RVs of any length, as can many of these nearby campgrounds.
RVing in Door County, Wisconsin
One of the most popular destination areas in the Midwest is the Door County peninsula. On a map, Door County gives Wisconsin its distinctive thumb appearance as it juts out into Green Bay and Lake Michigan. No visit to Wisconsin is complete without a drive up to Door County.
Many people say Door County resembles New England fishing communities because of the quaint houses and beautiful water views. It’s also an art lover’s paradise with hundreds of galleries and scenic places to paint. Fish boils are more than a meal; they’re an experience as well.
People sit outside around a large fire pit watching dinner being prepared as the chef explains the history and describes the ingredients used to create the meal. Each fish boil dinner is topped off with a slice of fresh Door County cherry pie.
People who like wine will love Door County. Several orchards and vineyards are scattered throughout the county selling their own brands of distinctive flavors. Cider concocted from unique blends of various wines and fruit juices is also readily available in the area.
There are five state parks and a state trail in Door County which offer some of the most scenic views in Wisconsin. Peninsula State Park is the crown jewel of the state park system. Located along the shores of Green Bay, there are miles of trails for hiking and biking. People can tour an old lighthouse and even climb steps to the top of a fire watchtower for a spectacular view of the region.
A ferry operates multiple times each day year-round from the peninsula’s tip in Rockport to Washington Island. Only 35 miles in circumference, the island boasts more than a hundred miles of roads that are ideal for biking and hiking.
People can take another ferry from Washington Island to Rock Island, which exclusively encompasses Rock Island State Park. People looking for RV parks and campgrounds near Door County can focus on the Egg Harbor area.
Wisconsin celebrations in every community
Parties and festivals aren’t just confined to Milwaukee. Those who are camping in Wisconsin will discover nearly every city and village hosts some type of cultural commemoration each year. Here are some of the more popular gatherings:
- You can enjoy lefsa, krumkake, and lutefisk as part of the Norwegian festival in Stoughton which is the largest Syttende Mai celebration in North America around May 17th commemorating Norway’s independence. Located just outside of Madison, the festival features traditional dances performed by a high school troupe, rosemaling exhibits by seniors, and two parades. If you feel especially athletic, you can run 20 miles or walk 17 from downtown Madison to Stoughton as part of the annual Syttende Mai Classic Run/Walk.
- In October, La Crosse hosts one of the largest Oktoberfest celebrations outside of Germany the last weekend of September and first weekend of October. Whether you enjoy the traditional folk dancing, one of several parades, or simply raising a stein of your favorite adult beverage in the outdoor biergarten, you’ll be caught up in the camaraderie. The annual dachshund race is hilarious and you are not likely to find finer original German cuisine anywhere else. Grab your lederhosen or dirndl and get your polka on!
- Called America’s Little Switzerland for a reason, New Glarus is a beautiful area for biking and driving. Founded by Swiss immigrants, New Glarus maintains the appearance of a quaint Swiss village and hosts the annual Heidi festival every June to commemorate its heritage. The event features traditional Swiss music, dancing, costumes, food, and even yodeling. Visitors can also tour an authentic Swiss village and pick up souvenirs at an arts-and-crafts show. The Heidi play is a family-favorite story about a young orphan girl who lives with her grandfather in the Alps. If you can’t make the June celebration, return to New Glarus in August for the Wilhelm Tell Festival that features a play commemorating the famous archer who split an apple resting on his young son’s head.
- People of the Christian faith will enjoy Lifest, one of the largest Christian music festivals in America with seven outdoor stages playing host to more than a hundred acts. The event takes place in Oshkosh each July. Wisconsin Dells also hosts the annual Gospel Music Festival in May.
- Wisconsin Dairy Month in June kicks off with the Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival in Little Chute, which is just south of Green Bay. This event is guaranteed to clog any artery with cheese tasting, cheese carving demonstrations, cheese curd eating competitions and, of course, the annual cheese breakfast. If you want to get a head start on these dairy delicacies, check out the annual Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship in April where chefs compete in Dodgeville to create delicious varieties of the classic hot sandwich.
Whether you spend a few days traveling through Wisconsin, or an entire season as a work camper, visiting the Badger State will be a memorable adventure. Let the stress melt away as you take in the fresh air, unique scenery, and Midwest hospitality of this culturally-diverse state. For more information, visit www.travelwisconsin.com. To find more points of interest while camping in Wisconsin, start planning your trip with RV Trip Wizard and the RV LIFE App.
Greg Gerber is an acclaimed journalist with a long history of writing in the RV Industry. A public speaker, writer and author of faith-based books, Greg splits time between Arizona and Wisconsin. Learn more about Greg at GregGerber.com